Estonia is among the leading economies in GovTech. And it is also shaping the paradigm of the next generation society around its core principles: citizen-centricity, a whole-of-government approach, plus simple, efficient, and transparent government systems. Once Estonia restored its independence, it gave birth to the first e-State, building on a cooperative society with flat hierarchies and harnessing a diffused entrepreneurial mindset.
Today, Estonia is putting together the pieces of the puzzle to shape the paradigm of the next generation society around the GovTech principles of citizen-centricity, a whole-of-government approach, and simple, efficient, and transparent government systems. Looking at the newest governmental projects can help us understand how this is developing.
State of the art
Burokratt AI is a government-wide AI-based innovation project that aims to set forth a new idea of e-State based on a government-wide virtual assistant.
The Digital Testbed Framework initiative brought to life the idea of open innovation, allowing every citizen to propose innovative projects to the government and use its core infrastructure and support to test them. It brought in over 80 applications worldwide.
E-Residency also follows the idea of openness, scaling it up to a global level and allowing citizens from all over the World to become virtual residents of Estonia and do business in the European Union.
Accelerate Estonia provides direct and close support by the government to innovators to “hack the system” and solve wicked problems.
Each of these initiatives on its own is innovative, even disruptive, and embodies one or more of the GovTech principles. Bürokratt makes the government simple, efficient, and transparent by creating a virtual assistant for citizens. E-Residency allows citizens from everywhere to access the benefits of Estonia’s citizen-centric e-State. The Digital Testbed Framework brings citizens at the centre of innovation, opening the governmental digital infrastructure for citizens to test their ideas. Finally, Accelerate Estonia is widening the whole-of-government approach from digital transformation to innovation, tackling issues such as climate change and beyond this. Only by considering them all together can one grasp why this is a societal paradigm change.
The paradigm change
This paradigm change is close to what academia defines as a techno-economic paradigm shift, a core element of industrial revolutions. Setting the new paradigm means defining the new “way of doing things“ across industries, a new “way of thinking,” and the sate’s role in determining it is paramount. What is the implication for the country that sets the paradigm? Reaping most economic benefits, as the UK first and the US later showed us in the last two centuries. This is easier said than done, but here is what Estonia is doing about it.
Bürokratt is advancing the idea of citizen-centricity, using AI to relieve humans from tedious activities and allowing citizens to access public services through a virtual assistant. It will enable citizens to interact with the government simply and efficiently, and it will support them in this interaction based on their needs. This is rooted in the idea that disruptive technologies must serve humans first. Most sophisticated uses will be possible when citizens themselves won’t waste time on bureaucratic duties and will take the lead in creating citizen-centric public services.
Citizens will be at the centre
Together these two projects speak loud and clear: citizens will be at the centre as they will be relieved from tedious, bureaucratic tasks to be welcomed as innovators without any cumbersome procurement or application process.
Accelerate Estonia is bringing the idea of a whole-of-government approach from digital transformation to innovation at large. The rationale of a whole-of-government -a collaborative approach across organisational boundaries- is extended to other actors. The government provides innovators with support and resources to “hack the system,” allowing them to interact with policymakers on critical issues. Bright minds in government, private sector, and academia need to collaborate to develop working solutions for wicked problems. E-Residency allows everyone in the World to access this pool of resources in Estonia. The virtual residency breaks national boundaries, allowing everyone to benefit from the e-State’s citizen-centric services and collaborate on the systemic change.
Accelerate Estonia and e-Residency represent an idea that a collaborative approach is needed in digital transformation and to solve wicked problems worldwide – and where better than testing them out in Estonia?
The power of ideas
A more comprehensive look at these new initiatives and Estonia’s e-State journey gives us a better sense of what is going on in the Baltic States.
Estonia’s experience with digitalisation is often presented as a story of innovation driven by pragmatism, efficiency, and a diffused entrepreneurial mindset. However, nowadays, things are not the same. Over the last 30 years, this mantra has been interiorised by Estonia, and the Baltic State is now transforming. The difference from the past is that at the beginning, Estonia was following principles of efficiency and open dialogue, building on its strengths; now, it is shaping them with its view. Bürokratt AI is indeed a good example. With its new public virtual assistant, Estonia is not only optimising the use of resources and encouraging entrepreneurialism but instead giving its imprint and creating an explicit link between the two.
Co-creating with citizens
Bürokratt sets out a concrete new way on what and how it should be done, exemplifying the consolidation of the paradigm shift. Bürokratt defines the use of AI to assist humans in navigating large organisations for personalised service provision, breaking boundaries, and freeing up time for innovation. Indeed, two of the first use cases of AI set out the fundamentals for the Digital Testbed Framework.
The Estonian Government CDO Ott Velsberg calls for citizens’ participation in developing virtual assistant language abilities. Efficiency is now used not just for budget purposes but also to free citizens for innovation. Entrepreneurialism is not currently not only sought but also encouraged, making governmental infrastructures available to citizens for citizen-centric innovation of public services.
Figure 1 Current techno-economic paradigm (Perez, 2002) extended to Estonia.
Let’s get practical
The paradigm change led by the Estonian e-state has to propagate across economic sectors to be effective. Studies on Estonia’s industrial innovative potential have been conducted, and the results bring our feet on the ground. The benefits of open innovation are challenged by the uncertainty of how and who reaps the benefit of successful outcomes. On top of this, the projects addressed in this overview set the more significant paradigm: they showcase how the government can make bureaucracy citizen-centric and straightforward and open up to innovation.
However, the devil lies in the details. The extent to which this approach allows the creation of new products and services that generate profits and push the industrial revolution forward is yet to be proven. Ultimately it will be the ability to refine the paradigm with use cases and cope with a hectic world that will determine the affirmation of a new “way of doing things” only this will confirm its validity, bring economic benefits, and encourage its application in a virtuous circle.
MSc candidate in Public Sector Innovation and eGovernance at KU Leuven, WWU Munster, TalTech